by Rivka Goldblatt
I’m a genealogist, or as my father calls it, a “mishpacha-logist”. It’s a fascinating job, and one of the interesting parts is how history – in particular, our own individual family history – does and does not define who we are today.
In many ways, we think of ourselves in terms of our history. You hear people using terms like “the generation after the war” or referring to themselves as a family who’ve “been in England for generations”. We act the way we do because we are Yekkes (ancestors from Germany) or Litvaks (ancestors from Lithuania). Depending on our ancestry, we will enjoy different foods, go on different vacations and celebrate different occasions. Some people think their ancestry doesn’t affect their actions at all, while others hope it has affected them strongly.
So does our history define who we are? Of course not. We have free will, and even if you have a family history of coming late to everything, you can still learn to turn up on time. It might be harder for someone who comes from a family where plentiful food is valued to lose excess weight, but that does not mean they can’t do it. And while you may have been born into a family that has no “yichus”, you can start the yichus, as is popularly said.
That being said, it is enlightening to think about our family history in terms of how it does affect us today because it can shed light on many things that we may be struggling with and help us find the cause of our failures – and our successes. I had one client whose family stories were full of money and prestige. It had been handed down through the generations that her ancestors had travelled first class from Poland to the USA – something very unusual for immigrants. Unfortunately, a little digging into the passenger lists revealed that it was indeed a myth. They had come third class, just like everyone else. So what created the family legend?
After researching the family tree, it was obvious. The family were dirt poor back in Poland. Several family members had died of starvation and related diseases. Money meant life to them. And they had cousins in the “Big City” who were wealthy and prestigious, and who they loved and looked up to. Is it any wonder that money worked its way into family lore? How much of a role does money play in the family’s life today? Does it affect the choices they make and the way they raise their children?
I’m not a scientist, nor am I curious (nosey?) enough to ask a client such personal questions. Yet perhaps it might be something to keep in mind for our own struggles.
Here is another example:
Self-care is an extremely fashionable topic to debate right now. What constitutes self-care, and what is selfish? Is it self-love, or is it self-worship? Before you passionately argue your point, it might be worth thinking about your family history. Did your family come from a place where only ehrliche Yidden lived, or were they constantly fighting against outside influences? Did your family feel secure in who they were and where they lived, or were they constantly persecuted and vulnerable? Did your family have the time and money to spend on themselves? Were they confident enough in their ability to keep themselves and their families alive that they also hoped to feel good?
Though many other factors, such as personality, age and even position in the family, will most probably influence which side of the debate you are on (and whether you join the debate or decide to keep the peace), your family history will most definitely have an impact.
As a genealogist, I deal with a huge range of family backgrounds. I’ve researched everything from illustrious rabbinic dynasties to family trees with only one possibly Jewish ancestor. And who our ancestors were – Jewish or not, frum or not, famous or not – is only one type of family history. The country, culture, wars and pandemics they lived through, the size of their families and the size of their towns, how often they moved and how far they travelled, all make up the story of their life – and by extension, our own.
To make things more complicated, we all have many ancestors from many different countries and cultures and with many different stories. And our ancestors had ancestors too, who shaped how they would live their lives! When people think of ancestors, or of yichus, in my experience they are thinking about people who lived a maximum of 15 generations ago, or around 500 years. That only takes us to the 1500s, or around the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Our histories and genealogies are more complicated than our minds can comprehend. For the most part, we can’t trace our ancestry back further than the 1500s, and even historians don’t completely know how day-to-day life was back then.
Who we are today, what we value and how we go about our lives is not defined by a single character trait or a single ancestor. Who we are is an infinitely complicated mix of genes, history, culture, personality, spirituality and free will. While we can’t determine exactly what makes us prone to certain thoughts, feelings or actions, it can be helpful to look at the ways our historical background has shaped us and our families so that we can be the people who we really want to be.
Whoever you are and wherever you come from, in the end it’s really up to you. Does your family history define who you are? What do you think?
My name is Rivka Goldblatt, and I’m passionate about genealogy, with over 12 years of experience in worldwide research.
My favorite time period is the second half of the 19th century, a time before both world wars, a time of change and excitement and mixing of worlds.
I’d love to find out more about your family too. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07597688335.
Your ancestors lived. Tell their story.